For the last 20 years I have been lucky enough the teach fisheries management at Utah State University. Over that time, I have seen many students go on to have careers that positively affected angler experiences. While the technology used to collect and evaluate data has changed, the goal of management, productive fisheries and happy anglers, remains the same. States achieve these goals through license sales and regulations.
One requirement for anglers in all states is to buy a license. The exception is on Free Fishing Day which this year occurs on June 12 in Utah and Idaho. How much a license costs depends on the state. Four western states (California, Oregon, Nevada, and Colorado) have annual resident licenses that cost more than $40. Washington and Wyoming licenses are less than $30 while Utah and Idaho licenses come in on the bottom half of the $30 range. Every western state reduces license costs for youths.
Most states in our region don’t require licenses for kids under 16. Utah, however, requires a reduced cost license for kids between 12 to 17 years old and Idaho uses the same approach with kids from 14 to 17. All but two states in the west, California and Arizona, also give senior discounts.
Non-residents pay more for licenses. The difference averaged across the western states show out-of-state anglers pay 2.8 times more than residents. Utah charges a bit less than average (2.5 times) and Idaho a bit more (3.5 times). If you are looking to travel to Montana this summer, you will pay almost five times more to fish than a resident. This differential pricing helps pay for the operation of state fish and game departments, especially in states that lure lots of out of state anglers.
Across the West the primary fish species targeted by anglers are trout. Every western state, except for Nevada, has a general daily limit for trout that falls between four and six fish. This is amazing given fishing conditions in the West range from world-renowned trout streams of Montana to unknown high mountain streams of New Mexico.
Regulations often restrict tackle to the use of flies and lures. This special restriction can be found on large portions of the Logan River. One restriction uncommon in the West are fly fishing only waters. It is a rarity as state managers see this as unnecessarily restrictive. In contrast, many eastern states rely on fly fishing only regulations in wild and hatchery-supported trout fisheries to reduce total pressure.
Oregon is the only state in the West that has a statewide minimum size limit (8 inches) for trout. What is considered a trophy fish in the regulations ranges between 16 and 22 inches depending on the state and body of water. Most states where cutthroat trout are native have areas with reduced limits or catch-and-release regulations for this species and more liberal limits for an introduced competitor, the brook trout.
At the other end of the spectrum is a warm water introduce species, the largemouth bass. The general limit for bass in all western states but Nevada ranges from five to six. This is not different from the limits for trout. The primary difference is this fish commonly sees statewide regulations or widely used special regulations that define minimum size limits between 12 and 16 inches. These size limits ensure many larger fish are available to anglers and reduces juvenile mortality.
One final regulation related to fishing is the requirement to have Aquatic Invasive Species permits on boat. Every western state except New Mexico and Arizona mandate these permits for non-resident boaters. Costs of these permits range from $15 to $50. So, if you plan to take a fishing trip through several states with a motorized boat, these permits could easily set you back $75.
What is not clear is if these states work together to identify and track boats that pose the greatest risk of spreading invasive species. A regional program could likely be more effective than nine independent state programs. My guess is this is what will happen over time.
Based on the similarity of license costs, daily harvest limits, and boating requirements it is clear western states are trying to provide anglers consistent chances for good outings in fisheries sustained by natural or hatchery production – especially if you are a resident. Management has been made simpler as many people keep fewer fish than they are legally allowed. So, while many of the techniques I teach in fisheries management are still important, it is clear they are being broadly applied. What is also clear is fishing across the West is now better than it was 35 years ago when I was a student taking the fisheries management class I now teach.